It started as a commission for a magazine. But this was no ordinary article. In 1969 and 1970, Life magazine serialised a piece by the American author and journalist Norman Mailer – three instalments that amounted to 115,000 words. The feature – later published as a book, and now appearing as an excerpt in Taschen’s Moonfire – was Mailer’s account of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. “I’ve worked as assiduously as any writer I know to portray the space programme in its largest, not its smallest, dimension,” wrote Mailer to Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong after the magazine series had concluded. A Fire on the Moon has been described as “the first work of literature to be devoted to the moon landings”.
In the introduction to Moonfire, the writer Colum McCann celebrates Mailer’s skill at turning “the science of space... the weight of history... the breadth of mythology” into prose. “The aim of good writing is to briefly put the handcuffs on history. To arrest time. Stop movement. Clamp down memory. Put a headlock on life, if even just for a moment or two,” writes McCann. “And then – when life is still, caught, held – the handcuffs are swallowed, and the words are put back together in an attempt to recreate life out of stillness, to make the silence breathe, to give an edge to the violence, or the beauty, so that years later, when a stranger comes along, he or she can step back into another time and have it come fiercely alive. This is the privilege of fiction. We become alive in a body, a time, a feeling, a culture that is not our own.”
Space engineering pioneer Wernher von Braun (pictured in 1964) helped design Germany’s V-2 rocket during World War Two, and was the chief architect of Apollo’s Saturn V
Although this is non-fiction, argues McCann, Mailer “does what very few prose writers can accomplish in that he allows us to step into one of the great moments of history and properly understand it from head to toe, from the big to the small, from inside out… He painted the pictures for us and now we’re seeing them. Even from a quarter of a million miles away, Mailer somehow got it right. He used the techniques of fiction to illuminate a historical reality that was at turns good bad and ugly.”
One small interview
Mailer’s account begins with a description of a press conference given by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on 5 July 1969, 11 days before the launch. The chapter is headed ‘The Psychology of Astronauts’, and he attempts a glimpse inside the heads of men “who have an extraordinary balance between discipline and daredevilry”.
Left to right: Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong on 13 April, 1969, next to a model of the Moon mapping every major crater and mountain known to date
Mailer writes: “In the attempt to protect the astronauts as much as possible from preflight infection they were being kept in a species of limited quarantine – their contacts with nonessential personnel were restricted. Since journalists fit this category, today’s press conference had installed Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins up on the stage in a plastic box about 12 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet high. Blowers within this three-walled plastic room blew air from behind them out into the audience: thereby, the breath of the astronauts could enter the theater, but the airborne germs of journalists would not blow back.”
16 July, 1969: view of the Apollo 11 launch from the press area, Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida
They were there to answer questions about a phenomenon which even 10 years ago would have been considered material unfit for serious discussion – Norman Mailer
Mailer’s account gives context to the press conference, and insights into each of the astronauts. “They were there to answer questions about a phenomenon which even 10 years ago would have been considered material unfit for serious discussion. Grown men, perfectly normal-looking, were now going to talk about their trip to the Moon. It made everyone uncomfortable… people were going to ask questions of three heroes about their oncoming voyage, which on its face must be in contention for the greatest adventure of man. Yet it all felt as if three young junior executives were announcing their corporation’s newest subdivision.”
1964: new astronauts Ted Freeman, Buzz Aldrin (centre), and Charlie Bassett experience zero gravity in Nasa’s KC135 aircraft – affectionately known as the Vomit Comet
According to Mailer, “It was as if they did not know if they were athletes, test pilots, engineers, corporation executives, some new kind of priest, or sheepish American boys caught in a position of outlandish prominence – my God, how did they ever get into this? … While the focus of attention was naturally on Armstrong for commanding the flight, he seemed in the beginning to be the least at ease… He was apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to play.”
18 July, 1969: Aldrin does an in-flight inspection of the Lunar Module on day three of the journey to the Moon
Mailer then describes comments by Buzz Aldrin on how the Lunar Module would leave the Moon and reconnect with the command module to return to Earth. “He went on to talk of star sightings and the powered ascent from the Moon – that moment when, having landed successfully and reconnoitered the Moon ground, they would be back in the LEM [Lunar Module] and ready to ascend – would the motor ignite or did the Moon have a curse? Aldrin spoke of this as a ‘new item’, then of rendezvous with the Command Module, which would return them to Earth, of ‘various contingencies that can develop’, of ‘a wider variety of trajectory conditions’ – he was talking about not being able to join up, wandering through space, lost forever to life in that short eternity before they expired of hunger and thirst. Small hint of that in these verbal formulations… The heart of astronaut talk, like the heart of all bureaucratic talk, was a jargon which could be easily converted to computer programming, a language like Fortran or Cobol or Algol. Anti-dread formulations were the center of it, as if words like pills were there to suppress emotional symptoms.”
20 July, 1969: Aldrin’s boot leaves a sharp imprint in the lunar soil
Men would now dare to walk on an ancient and alien terrain where no life breathed and beneath the ground no bodies were dead – Norman Mailer
Aldrin spoke about walking on the Moon in similar language later in the press conference, as Mailer recounts. “‘I think the most critical portion of the EVA will be our ability to anticipate and to interpret things that appear not to be as we expected them to be, because if we don’t interpret them correctly then they will become difficult.’ … EVA stood for Extravehicular Activity, that is for action taken outside their vehicle, the LEM. EVA therefore referred to their walk on the Moon; but the sound of the letters e, v, a might inspire less perturbation than the frank admission that men would now dare to walk on an ancient and alien terrain where no life breathed and beneath the ground no bodies were dead.”
Mailer also recounts the moment when Michael Collins – who was the only Apollo 11 astronaut not landing on the Moon – was asked by a journalist about his feelings. “‘Colonel Collins, to people who are not astronauts, you would appear to have the most frustrating job on the mission, not going all the way. How do you feel about that?’… He answered quickly. ‘I don’t feel in the slightest bit frustrated. I’m going 99.9 percent of the way there, and that suits me just fine.’ … The only real guide to aristocracy in American life was to see who could keep his cool under the most searing conditions of unrest, envy, ambition, jealousy and heat. So not a quiver showed. ‘I couldn’t be happier right where I am,’ he concluded and the voice was not hollow, it did not offer a cousin to a squeak. Still nobody believed him.”
20 July, 1969: Armstrong photographs his shadow and the distant Lunar Module from the East Crater
Mailer reveals as much through patterns of speech as in what the astronauts said. “Armstrong came in quickly. ‘I’d like to say in that regard that the man in the Command Module’ … pause... ‘of course by himself’ ... another pause... ‘has a giant-sized job.’ When Armstrong paused and looked for the next phrase he sometimes made a sound like the open crackling of static on a pilot’s voice band with the control tower. One did not have the impression that the static came from him so much as that he had listened to so much static in his life, suffered so much of it, that his flesh, his cells, like it or not, were impregnated with the very cracklings of static. ‘He has to run Buzz’s job and my job’ … static… ‘along with his own job simultaneously’ ... static ... ‘in addition act as relay to the ground’ … pause and static … ‘It’s at least a three-man job and’ – he murmured a few words – ‘Michael is certainly not lacking for something to do while he’s circling around… And if he can’t think of anything else, he can always look out the window and admire the view.’”
1962: inventor Allyn Hazard tests a Moon suit concept in a crater in California’s Mojave Desert
Mailer ends his press conference account with a question from a journalist about death. “‘You had mentioned that your flight, like all others, contains very many risks. What, in view of that, will your plans be in the extremely unlikely event that the Lunar Module does not come up off the lunar surface?’ Armstrong smiled. His detestation of answering questions in public had been given its justification. Journalists would even ask a man to comment on the emotions of his oncoming death. ‘Well,’ said Armstrong, ‘that’s an unpleasant thing to think about’.”
The atmosphere had been equal to any other dull press conference in which a company had unveiled a new and not very special product – Norman Mailer
It was, according to Mailer, an anti-climax. “When the conference was done, there was only a small pattering of applause from the Press. The atmosphere had been equal to any other dull press conference in which a company had unveiled a new and not very special product. Resentment in the Press was subtle but deep. An event of such dimensions and nothing to show for it…The horror of the 20th Century was the size of each new event, and the paucity of its reverberation. But what if you’re unable to get off the Moon? ‘Unpleasant thing to think about.’”
11 September, 1963: President John F Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama on a cross-country tour of American space facilities
After the conference, Mailer kept returning to Armstrong’s answer. “That was the nearest anyone had come to saying that a man could get killed in the pits of this venture. And yes, they did think about it. A man who was in training for six months to go to the Moon would be obliged to think about his death. Yet, if to contemplate the failure of the ascent stage of the Lunar Module to rise off the Moon was unpleasant for Armstrong to think about, did that derive automatically and simply because it would mean death, or was it, bottomless taint of the unpleasant, a derivation deep out of the incommensurable fact that the Moon ground would be the place where his body must rest in death? People who had nearly died from wounds spoke of the near death as offering a sensation that one was rising out of one’s body… Did the souls of the dead choose to rise? Was the thought of expiring on the Moon an abyss of unpleasantness because the soul must rest in the tombless vacuums of a torso dead on the Moon and therefore not able to voyage toward its star?”
Moonfire includes reproductions of several pages of Mailer’s original draft for the book
Mailer described his book about the Moon landing as a “philosophical launch”, and in it he grapples with the men and the machinery involved in a landmark event in history – as well as the question of why it was happening at all. As McCann puts it, “One of the central questions – one that seems almost quaint now in the 21st Century – was whether the venture was noble or insane.” Mailer’s conclusion? “It was as if we had begun to turn the pocket of the universe inside out.”
Moonfire, published by Taschen, is out now.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.